2021 Update – 16 Best Places to Live in Northern California and Why

NorCal features some of the state’s best cities, so we updated our rankings of the best places to live in Northern California for 2021 to give you the latest reviews of the top communities in the Golden State.

A lot has changed since the global pandemic, so our list reflects the recent shifts that have occurred in our society. We placed a greater emphasis on places that offered more space and access to nature, such as the beachfront, the mountains, and state parks.

We also made sure to update this list of the best cities in Northern California with data from large online databases like Niche.com, AreaVibes, and U.S. News and World Report.

We looked for cities that offered a good balance of life, which includes affordable housing, job opportunities, lots of leisure activities, good schools, and low crime.

Of course, California is not known for being the most affordable state, so keep in mind that our consideration of affordability is all relative to the rest of the state.

One other note is that we defined Northern California as generally the region from the Bay Area (which includes San Francisco) and up.

With these guidelines, we were able to find 16 of the best cities to live in Northern California, specifically considering the new way of life that is emerging as well. We found that most of our choices were suburbs of places like San Francisco and Sacramento, but there were also a few, more isolated places that still offered a nice, balanced way of life.

So, let’s take a look at which cities made our final rankings of the best places to live in Northern California in 2021.

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16 Best Places to Live in Northern California – 2021

16. Napa

Best-Places-to-Live-in-Northern-California-Napa

Pros and Cons:
+ Perfect climate
+ Stunningly beautiful countryside
Wine tourists
High housing costs

Location: Check on Google Maps

The city of Napa just makes it onto our list of the best cities in Northern California. This iconic city sits in the heart of Napa Valley and is less than 1 hour north of San Francisco. Its majestic valleys and rolling hills are home to some of the most well-known vineyards in the world, making it a prime destination for wine lovers.

Napa scored well in offering its almost 80,000 residents with many things to do, including gourmet restaurants and a lively entertainment and culture scene in its small downtown area.

But, this beautiful city does come at a price. The average home is valued at over $800,000 according to the latest figures from Zillow. Additionally, Napa’s famous wineries attract millions of visitors to a relatively small area each year.

15. Santa Rosa

Pros and Cons:
+ Relatively affordable in wine country
+ Foodie heaven
Traffic concerns
Rising housing costs

Location: Check on Google Maps

Santa Rosa is a gem of a city located in Sonoma County and is a close neighbor to Napa. San Francisco is also easily accessible at just an hour drive away. Many locals consider Santa Rosa as offering a more down-to-earth lifestyle compared to Napa. This assessment is also reflected in its housing prices, which are almost 20% lower than in Napa.

Still, it offers many high quality amenities and activities. Santa Rosa (and Napa) were named the #1 best foodie city in all of America.

14. Cameron Park

Pros and Cons:
+ Unique town built for pilots
+ Great location between mountain and large cities
High cost of living
Sprawling suburban neighborhoods

Location: Check on Google Maps

Cameron Park is a small community of just over 30,000 people that sits about 30 minutes outside of Sacramento. It’s more of a town than a city and is highly residential, which is ideal for families.

But, it still offers many things to do, such as the Cameron Park Country Club that sits in the heart of town as well as its commercial district that houses numerous restaurants, supermarkets, and retail stores.

Perhaps Cameron Park is best known as being a town that was designed for pilots. Many of its residents own a private plane and have their own hangar built into their home. That is all made possible since Cameron Park features a small airport and constructed a portion of the town with wide streets to accommodate planes. Be sure to check this city out if you are an aviation enthusiast.

13. Granite Bay

Pros and Cons:
+ Quiet, nature-filled suburb
+ Top location
High-priced homes
Rural atmosphere not suitable for all

Location: Check on Google Maps

Granite Bay is another Sacramento suburb that is rapidly rising up the ranks as one of the best places to live in Northern California. It sits right on Folsom Lake and offers tons of green space around the city, making it an ideal place for those seeking a closer connection to nature.

This community of over 20,000 residents is quite rural, but that doesn’t mean that it is lacking in refinement. In fact, Granite Bay is popular with many celebrities and athletes. Some past and current residents include Eddie Murphy and former Sacramento Kings player Chris Webber.

The consequence of this popularity is home prices that are quite high. The average house goes for about $1 million in Granite Bay.

12. Truckee

Best-Places-to-Live-in-Northern-California-Truckee

Pros and Cons:
+ Dream for outdoor lovers
+ Historic downtown offers many amenities
Expensive
Attracts many tourists

Location: Check on Google Maps

Truckee is a small town just 15 minutes from Lake Tahoe. We think it is one of the best cities in Northern California primarily due to the endless outdoor activities that you can do in and around the area.

Truckee is the perfect base for skiing, hiking, biking, camping, and rafting nearby.

It also features a charming historic downtown that has excellent restaurants, cozy cafes, and lively bars, making it one of the best cities to live in Northern California around the Tahoe area.

However, Truckee is quite touristy and its cost of living is pretty high. It’s almost 50% more expensive than the rest of the US and average home values are close to $1 million.

11. El Dorado Hills

Pros and Cons:
+ Great school system
+ Strong sense of community
High home values
Extremely hot in the summer

Location: Check on Google Maps

El Dorado Hills is another suburb of Sacramento that is located on the other side of Folsom Lake from Granite Bay. It is routinely named as one of the best places to live in California for families as it boasts a top school system and low crime rates.

Many locals rave about the strong community ties that El Dorado Hills has developed, as well as its easy access to the lake and the mountains.

There is also the El Dorado Hills Town Center shopping mall, making it a bit more suburban in feel compared to Granite Bay.

10. Sacramento

Pros and Cons:
+ Affordability vs. rest of California
+ Great access to outdoor activities
Areas of crime within the city
Limited amenities vs. other big cities

Location: Check on Google Maps

Sacramento continues to rise on our list of best cities in Northern California as it represents a large city that is affordable (for California standards) and continues to grow and offer new job opportunities.

The cost of living is actually 20% lower than the rest of California, while the average home cost is just over $400,000. Sacramento’s large area also means that there are numerous neighborhoods to choose from to suit your needs.

Its prime location also makes it one of the most desirable places to be. It’s only 1.5 hours from San Francisco, while Lake Tahoe can be reached in 2 hours.

But, Sacramento does not offer as many things to do compared to other large, capital cities, but we think that will change as it continues its steady growth. The downtown riverfront area is poised to become one of the top spots in the region.

9. Walnut Creek

Pros and Cons:
+ Bustling, walkable downtown area
+ Strong community vibes
Very high cost of housing
Limited diversity

Location: Check on Google Maps

Walnut Creek is located in the East Bay region, just 30 minutes east of San Francisco and 45 minutes north of San Jose. Its central location makes it a top choice for commuters from both cities, while offering a more relaxed pace of life from the big city.

But, Walnut Creek still has plenty to offer. It features a downtown area that is pretty sizable for a mainly suburban community. There are historic buildings that house top-tier restaurants and upscale boutiques. It is all pretty walkable, too, which is quite rare and quite valuable in our post-pandemic lifestyle.

But, homes in Walnut Creek do not come cheap. The average home value is just under $1 million.

8. Palo Alto

Pros and Cons:
+ Extraordinary clean and safe
+ Lively downtown
Astronomical housing costs
Terrible traffic

Location: Check on Google Maps

Palo Alto is a suburb of San Francisco, just 30 minutes south, and is perfectly located near the headquarters of many tech companies in Silicon Valley like Facebook, Google, and Tesla.

It also features a thriving downtown area that is quite walkable and bikeable with many diverse restaurants, cozy cafes, and retail services lining its streets.

Additionally, education is a top priority in Palo Alto. It offers a strong school system and is also home to Stanford University.

However, all of these prime amenities come at a considerable cost. The average home value in Palo Alto is a staggering $3.2 million. It even made our list of the most expensive places to live in all of California.

7. San Jose

Best-Cities-to-Live-in-Northern-California-San-Jose

Pros and Cons:
+ Great job opportunities
+ Tons of things to do
Extremely high cost of living
Limited nightlife

Location: Check on Google Maps

San Jose is the biggest city in the Silicon Valley region on the south end of the Bay. It is home to over 1 million residents and is known for offering an ideal blend of big city amenities, great job opportunities, and a relaxed lifestyle.

San Jose’s bustling downtown features many diverse restaurants and things to do and see. There are museums, parks, and even a professional hockey team, the San Jose Sharks.

However, it’s not the cheapest area to live in. The cost of living in San Jose is 80% higher than the rest of the US.

But, given its close proximity to many leading companies, comfortable weather, and things to do for the whole family, it is clear to see why San Jose is still one of the best places to live in Northern California in 2021.

6. Rocklin

Pros and Cons:
+ Relatively affordable
+ Low crime rates
Increase congestion due to growth
Extremely hot summers

Location: Check on Google Maps

Rocklin is a suburb of Sacramento that has just under 70,000 residents. Its well-kept streets and neighborhoods are known for being quite safe. In fact, its crime rate is almost 40% below the national average.

While its cost of living is still quite high compared to the rest of the US, it is actually 3% lower than the average for the rest of California.

This family friendly suburb is filled with parks, playgrounds, and things to do for the whole family. For example, there is Quarry Park Adventures, which is an outdoor activity sports center. There are also several golf courses around the town as well.

Best of all, its location makes it a top choice to consider. It is less than 30 minutes from downtown Sacramento and Folsom Lake is only 15 minutes away.

5. San Francisco

Pros and Cons:
+ Unlimited cultural and entertainment options
+ Excellent job options
Unbelievable cost of living
Uncertain future

Location: Check on Google Maps

No list of the best places to live in Northern California would be complete without including San Francisco. The city needs no introduction and is certainly a world-class option in this area. It is also the largest city on this list.

However, it has lost some of its luster recently, as its sky-high cost of living was less easy to justify during the pandemic. We think San Francisco will thrive again post-pandemic, but it will need to readjust and be more flexible, just like the rest of society.

If you are looking for a diverse, progressive city with endless job opportunities and can afford the astronomical housing costs, then there is really no city quite like San Francisco.

But, be ready to spend. The average home value across the whole city is a whopping $1.4 million, which is an unbelievable amount considering that the city has almost 900,000 residents.

4. Dublin, California

Pros and Cons:
+ Strong feeling of community
+ Good affordability for the Bay Area
Extra traffic to larger cities
Growth induced sprawl

Location: Check on Google Maps

Dublin, California has experienced tremendous growth in recent years as more and more people uncover this hidden gem that is in the East Bay region of NorCal.

It has grown over 40% since 2010 and residents enjoy its perfect location that is just steps away from numerous hiking trails in the mountains and only 30 minutes from San Jose and 45 minutes from San Francisco by car. You can even take the BART public transportation system to San Francisco in 1.5 hours.

The city itself offers a true feel of community, with many events like farmer’s markets and concert series that brings everyone together. Meanwhile, there is a nice downtown commercial area that offers virtually everything you need.

Although it is still quite expensive, Dublin is relatively affordable in this area, especially compared to its Silicon Valley neighbors. The cost of living here is less than 50% higher than the California state average.

When you consider that places like Palo Alto are about 160% higher than the state average, Dublin actually becomes quite a good deal.

3. Los Altos

Pros and Cons:
+ Great amenities and low crime
+ Perfect location near SF, San Jose, and tech companies
Impossibly high home prices
Growing traffic and congestion

Location: Check on Google Maps

Los Altos is home to just over 30,000 people on the west side of the Bay Area right between San Francisco and San Jose. The city contains many beautiful residential neighborhoods along with a small commercial district with a main street that is filled with boutiques, restaurants, and cafes.

Los Altos is highly regarded in virtually all aspects that make a city desirable and livable. In fact, it earned an A+ rating in almost every category by AreaVibes and was even named the most livable city in all of California, which makes it a perennial contender for being one of the best cities in Northern California.

We would have ranked it higher if not for its astonishing cost of living. It is over 240% higher than the national average, which is driven by housing costs that are over 740% higher than the rest of the US.

It even made our list of the most expensive cities in all of California.

2. Clovis

Pros and Cons:
+ Affordable, well-rounded community
+ Perfect base for outdoor adventures
Fewer job opportunities vs. Bay Area
Extremely hot summer months

Location: Check on Google Maps

Clovis is a bit different than many other cities on this list as it’s not a suburb of San Francisco or Sacramento. It’s also a bit more Central California than NorCal, but we couldn’t leave it off this list due to its high standard of living and relative affordability.

In fact, it’s downright cheap compared to everywhere else on this list. The cost of living in Clovis is almost 30% lower than the rest of California. Meanwhile, home prices average around just $400,000.

So, what does Clovis have to offer? This city of 100,000 people is just 6 miles from Fresno and contains numerous affordable neighborhoods, many commercial areas (as well as a small downtown on Clovis Ave), and an excellent school system.

Locals also rave about the sense of community that is fostered within Clovis.

Its location also makes it ideal for outdoor lovers, as this self-proclaimed “Gateway to the Sierras” is just 30 minutes from the mountains and 2.5 hours from Yosemite National Park, making it one of the best cities to live in Northern California for families and for adventurers.

1. Folsom

Best-Cities-in-Northern-California-Folsom

Folsom Historic District by The Oaked Ridge licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Pros and Cons:
+ Ideal for families and outdoor lovers
+ Beautiful historic district
Traffic and congestion
Expensive housing options

Location: Check on Google Maps

The best place to live in Northern California in 2021 is Folsom. Its 70,000 residents are situated right on Folsom Lake and are just 30 minutes from Sacramento.

The city is filled with green areas and hiking trails, while its school districts are routinely named as some of the best in the state. Additionally, there is the quaint Folsom Historic District that offers many restaurants and bars along the picturesque, walkable streets of its downtown.

It’s not cheap, with average home prices almost reaching $700,000, but it is still less than 5% above the average for all of California, making it a good value and therefore the best city in Northern California, especially for Sacramento commuters.

Summary – Best Places to Live in Northern California

The suburbs dominate this list of the best cities in Northern California as we see a distinct shift in the demand for more space and more reasonable living costs. NorCal’s big cities still offer an exciting lifestyle, but people are realizing that it may not be fully worth its price of admission, especially if their physical location is not as important going forward.

It seems that the best balance is a city or town that is close enough to a large metropolitan area, but far enough to offer direct access to parks, lakes, and mountains. It should also have amenities of its own, like a small downtown area to walk around.

We think that this list provides great examples of those types of places, so now it’s up to you to decide which one is the best fit for you.

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